– Alfred A. Knopf, Canada 2005 ; ISBN 0-676-97418-X
Read from April 17th to 9th 2015
I’m not the first to say that, even though I could hardly remember the episode of the twelve maids’ hanging in Penelope’s myth, after reading Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad I will never forget it again.
As you probably know, this novella was written as part of an ambitious and interesting project called “Canongate Myth Series” and started by the Scottish publishing house Canongate Books, which challenged over a hundred authors to rewrite universal myths. It is said that the first choice of the author was a Norse legend, followed by a Native American one, but in the end she remembered the twelve maids from Odyssey and decided to make them speak for themselves, together with Penelope, as she states in the Introduction:
I’ve chosen to give the telling of the story to Penelope and to the twelve hanged maids. The maids form a chanting and singing Chorus which focuses on two questions that must pose themselves after any close reading of The Odyssey: what led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to? The story as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many inconsistencies. I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids; and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.
Like in the antique tragedies, the book will alternate Penelope’s voice with those of the maids in the form of a chorus, but not quite with the same function: even though the chorus reveals indeed sometimes, as it is supposed to do, secrets and fears of the main characters, it comments upon their actions and it even denounces them as liars (it makes us doubt, for example, Penelope’s fidelity), it is not a simple bystander but a collective character with a role in action almost as important as the heroine’s – a sort of supporting character, if you like. Moreover, while Penelope recites her story in the same naïve, slightly monotonous narrative, the Chorus changes its voice at every entrance, mimicking several genres of each style, epic, lyric and dramatic, in a burlesque attempt to steal the footlights from Penelope: its first entrance, for example, in the skipping-rhyme style used by children in their songs seems to anticipate both Penelope’s and the maids childhood, but it is followed by a lament that mourns the differences between them. In the same way, when Penelope doubts the truth of her husbands’ adventures, the Chorus sings a sea-shanty that proves true every one of them. Further on, Penelope’s nightmares are responded with ballads about freedom dreams, and her denials of adultery with a parody-like drama called The Perils of Penelope (maybe an impish allusion to an animated television series from 1969, The Perils of Penelope Pitstop).
At the end of the book, after assuming the Erinyes role by haunting Odysseus even in Hades, and disturbing Penelope’s peace of mind by driving away her husband, the twelve maids change into twelve owls that take off, letting behind only a iambic-dimeter echo to be reminded by:
and now we follow
you, we find you
now, we call
to you to you
too wit too woo
too wit too woo
The Maid sprout feathers, and fly away as owls.
The owl symbolism sends not only to Greek mythology – as wise Athena’s sacred bird, or to Egyptian culture – as the guardianship of the underworlds, and a protection of the dead, but also to the Native Americans beliefs – as a keeper of sacred knowledge and a helper of the oracles.
Some critics failed to see the importance of the Chorus in the text, considering it unnecessary or even inopportune. On the contrary I found it on one hand a nice counterbalance in the text economy, with its tone variations and its mischievous comments, and on the other hand a witty reinterpretation of the reflector-character via the ancient tragedy. In the chapter “An Anthropology Lecture”, considered by Mary Beard (or so Wikipedia says) a “complete rubbish”, it is implied that the murder of the twelve maids was part of an ancient ritual, implying Artemis and her twelve moon-maidens:
The thirteen was our High Priestess, the incarnation of Artemis herself. She was none other than – yes! Queen Penelope!
This idea (which Margaret Atwood confessed in her final notes that was inspired by a theory of Robert Graves exposed in his book The Greek Myths) gives way to another, even more beautiful: Penelope, far from being a separate character, is one of their own, the coryphaeus, merging thus the destiny of the main hero with the destiny of the Chorus’ leader, to confuse once again roles, actors and other narrative tools in a postmodernist way so subtle that remains almost unobserved. And with this key in hand you can revise once again the story and gather all her roles: main character narrator that builds herself a voice, a past and a destiny to exceed the symbolism to which her figure was reduced by the male story-tellers (“Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making. I owe it to myself.”); metafictional narrator that reinterprets the Odyssey (“Odysseus had been in a fight with a giant one-eyed Cyclops, said some; not, it was only a one-eyed tavern keeper, said another, and the fight was over non-payment of the bill”); reflector-character that changes voices to widen perspective (“Penelope: (…) It wasn’t the fact of their being raped that told against them, in the mind of Odysseus. It’s that they were raped without permission”); unreliable narrator that desecrates the myth not only by transforming it in the “low art” of tale-telling but also by casting a shadow of suspicion over the heroes and the events (“The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.”) and so on, and so forth.
It is obvious that, far from being “a riff on a better story that comes dangerously close to being a spoof", as reproached by Caroline Alexander in her New York Times Review, The Penelopiad challenges the reader in the same way Margaret Atwood’s books have accustomed us with, expanding our view of mythology while encouraging our own interpretation of it. Of course, leading us on a little, but what author does not?
P.S. Actually, a 3.5-star rating.